Valentina Tereshkova was the first-ever woman to fly a spacecraft, on June 16, 1963. But even before Tereshkova took off, the United States was researching–and discarding–the idea of sending women into space, for reasons that had nothing to do with their abilities. It would take another twenty years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
This is the story of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, an elite group of women pilots who underwent astronaut testing and seemed like they might be on track to become astronauts in the early 1960s. The best remembered of these women is probably Jerrie Cobb, a record-setting aviator. Even though Cobb and twelve others did extremely well in the astronaut tests, none of them went to space and the program they were part of was killed, speaking to the unwarranted sexism of the early American space program.
The FLATs weren’t technically part of the NASA program. Their testing was overseen by Dr. Randy Lovelace, the doctor who created the Mercury mission’s astronaut testing standards, at his private clinic. Cobb was recruited first, in 1960, and on the basis of her results, twenty-five other women were tested, with twelve qualifying. At moments in 1961, writes Amy Shira Teitel for Popular Science, it certainly appeared that the FLATs were being seriously considered for entry into the space program.
There were strong arguments for looking at women astronauts, writes historian Margaret Weitekamp for the National Air and Space Museum. “Scientists knew that women, as smaller beings on average, require less food, water and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft,” she writes. “Women outperformed men on isolation tests and, on average, had better cardiovascular health.”
But by 1962, the idea had been scrapped. In the wake of this, Cobb and Jane Hart, another FLAT, argued for their program before a July 17-18, 1962 Congressional hearing. In the hearing transcript, Cobb–who was unmarried–got a first name. But Jane Hart was billed as “Mrs. Philip Hart, wife of Senator Philip A. Hart, of Michigan, and also a famed pilot, as well as an outstanding wife and mother.”
“We seek, only, a place in our Nation’s space future without discrimination,” Cobb said in her statement. “We ask as citizens of this Nation to be allowed to participate with seriousness and sincerity in the making of history now, as women have in the past.”
John Glenn, who became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962, also testified before Congress at the same hearing. As Roshanna Sylvester writes for The Conversation, adolescent girls frequently wrote to Glenn expressing their aspirations to be like him, and their doubts that it would be possible for them to reach the stars. According to Sylvester, one teen named Diana A. wrote to Glenn, saying, “I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15-year-old girl I guess that would be impossible.”
Glenn didn’t do much to encourage young women who wrote to him. As his statements before Congress revealed, he didn’t think women belonged in space at all–even though the Soviet Union sent a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space in 1963.
Before Congress, Glenn said he thought that former military pilots made the best astronauts, Sylvester writes, stating that “the men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them.” Among the many people this statement ignored were the Women Airforce Service Pilots (commonly known as the WASPs), among them Jacqueline Cochran, who helped to fund the FLATs and had hopes of a longer-term women in space program.
Up to that point, the U.S. had rushed to meet Soviet space achievements mark for mark. But they didn’t rush to put a woman in space, even though they had women who would have been ideal candidates.
“Perhaps launching an American women would signal that a direct competition for space supremacy existed,” writes Weitekamp in her book on the FLATs. At the same time, the way gender was framed in postwar America meant that a woman injured in space would impact how NASA looked domestically.
But that wasn’t the big reason, writes Weitekamp. “On a very basic level,” she writes, “it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut.”
Perhaps that’s most galling of all. With all that talent in front of them, they just… didn’t care.
Jane Hart went on to become active in the antiwar movement. She died in 2015. Jerri Cobb is 86. She spent her career flying the Amazon jungle as a missionary pilot, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.